April 3, 2011

Together We Evangelize (4) Amazing Grace (Jonah 3)

by Rev. Jeremiah Cheung

Although chapter three of the Book of Jonah contains only ten verses, it is filled with several amazing incidents, thus, I entitled this chapter `Amazing Grace’. Let us reflect on God’s amazing grace upon us and our church as we celebrate the church’s 24th anniversary today. In these 10 verses, we see three amazing things:

1. an amazing second chance
2. an amazing news of judgment
3. an amazing regret:

I. Amazing Second Chance 3:1-3

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.” The first time the Lord told Jonah to go to Nineveh, he didn’t go, instead he fled to Tarshish; as a result the Lord used a big storm and a large fish to bring him back. Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, that is 72 hours. What happens to a man who gets stuck in the belly of a fish for 72 hours?

Let us hear the true story of a man who was swallowed by a whale: In February of 1891, a ship by the name of ‘Star of the East’ was hunting whales along the vicinity of the Faulkland islands. One day, they saw a great whale and immediately pursued it. In the process, two sailors were thrown overboard. One of the sailors drowned, while another by the name of James went missing. Later the whale was caught and when it was cut open, they discovered James lying inside the fish belly. They immediately tried to resuscitate him. James revived, but it took him two weeks to recover consciousness and also his voice. However, as a result of having been exposed to the gastric juices inside the fish’ stomach for 48 hours, the skin on his whole body turned white and never recovered its original appearance.

May I remind you that Jonah was inside the fish belly 72 hours, when the fish vomited him out, he didn’t suffer any injury, his appearance didn’t change, that is a miracle! Under normal circumstances, Jonah should have died after 72 hours in the fish belly. Jonah should have been a dead man, but God brought him back to life.

When Jesus was on earth, and the Pharisees asked him to perform a miracle, Jesus answered them: “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” And then Jesus immediately added, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Jesus was dead as he lay buried in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. He rose from the dead on the third day. This tells us that Jonah could not have been alive in the fish belly after three days and three nights. That Jonah was alive is a great miracle.

I will explain it more plainly: Jonah, this disobedient prophet should have been dead early on in the ocean, he should have been a dead man. But the Lord restored him to life and gave him another chance. This is an amazing second chance.

I remembered Ephesians 2:1 “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins” and then Ephesians 2:4-5 “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions. it is by grace you have been saved.” All of us were dead in our sins, only the love of God made us alive in Christ.

Such is the Lord’s amazing second chance for us too! Today, if there is anyone who has not yet trusted the Lord, I would like to welcome you; but pardon me for saying this: we are in fact welcoming dead people into our midst. I am not cursing you, in my heart I sincerely welcome you but if you will not accept Jesus’ salvation, you are truly a dead man. In the past, I was also a dead man, a living dead. But the Lord gave me an amazing chance, I grabbed hold of the opportunity and now I am alive. God is also giving you his grace, a chance; if you would only accept it, then you can truly come alive. Have you taken hold of this amazing second chance?

O Church! What about us? God gave Jonah a ministry opportunity, but he rejected it. Praise the Lord that when God gave him a second chance he accepted it; hence, we have the `Book of Jonah’ today. Today is the church’s 24th anniversary. In the past 24 years, the Lord had given us many opportunities to serve him. Some brothers and sisters had taken hold of the opportunities, but some had not. Today, God wants to give us a second chance. We must do as Jonah did and grab hold of it; for if not, we will have no story to tell, no testimony to share.

II. Amazing News of Judgment 3:4-9

Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” This was a very large city which requires three days to journey through, but Jonah went only on a day’s journey. He only did one-third of the job. He proclaimed, ““Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Pondering upon it, I realized Jonah seemingly told them only half of the story. And this is easy to understand. For example, before you became a Christian, you visit a fortune-teller. The fortune-teller tells you that he foresees danger ahead for you this year, and then he continues to tell you many frightening things that will happen to you. You will surely ask him ways and means you can prevent such misfortunes from happening to you. Actually, he is waiting for you to ask him that very question, so he can tell you the ways to prevent the misfortunes – that you must do this, do that…eventually, you will be very grateful and pay a generous amount for his service, just as he planned. If the Lord had only wanted to judge them, He could have simply sent fire down on them; there was no need for Jonah. But the Lord wanted Jonah to announce more than just his judgment. He wanted Jonah to warn them, ““Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown- unless you repent and turn from your evil ways.” Jonah only travelled a third of the journey and announced only half of the news. But what is amazing is how this incomplete piece of news brought the whole nation to repentance.

Imagine a foreigner announcing aloud in China’s Tiananmen Square: `Forty days more and Beijing will be overthrown.’ There are three possible outcomes: 1. People will ignore him and say he is crazy. 2. The police will arrest him and say he is causing trouble. 3. People will beat him up. Jonah was an Israelite. Israel and Nineveh were enemies. An American who shouts in Iraq `forty days more and Iraq will be overthrown’ yet doesn’t get beat up would be a strange thing indeed. The Lord said that Nineveh’s wickedness had come up before him, and so we see from this that the Ninevites weren’t exactly a nice group of people; thus, Jonah’s loud proclamation of their destruction and not getting beaten was strange indeed.

1. The Ninevites believed God, they declared a fast, the greatest to the least wore sackcloth. According to the account in chapter four, there were a hundred and twenty thousand people who couldn’t tell their right hand from their left in city of Nineveh; usually, the phrase would mean little children. If so, this city must have had a population of approximately 500,000. I dare not say that all 500,000 of the inhabitants repented, but at least 70-80% must have repented. They are better than us Christians, they immediately repented upon hearing Jonah’s message, and they even declared a fast and put on sackcloth. As for us, Christians, many times we fail to respond to the messages we hear. When they heard the news that day, they immediately responded and obeyed the Lord, they repented, from the greatest to the least put on sackcloth. The greatest refer to the city’s rich and powerful, the least refer to those who were of the lower class; even servants and slaves repented.

2. The King Repented. When the news reached the king’s ears, he descended from his throne, removed his royal robes, covered himself in sackcloth and sat down in the dust. In the Book of Jonah, there are two kinds of descent: one is Jonah’s descent. Jonah went from bad to worse. He refused to obey the Lord. The Bible says: He went down to Joppa, then he went down below the ship’s deck; in the end, he was thrown down into the bottom of the sea. This is called a deterioration. The second descent is the Ninevite king’s stepping down from his throne. He stepped down from his throne and sat in the dust. This is called repentance. The Ninevite king was not a worshipper of the true God, he was an idol-worshipper. The Assyrian Empire worshipped idols, but this king stepped down from his throne; meaning he relinquished his position as king. This is too amazing. If our president proclaims a forty-day fast, put on sackcloth and repents of his sins, would you consider that amazing? That is impossible you say; yes, it is indeed impossible, but this impossible thing happened in history. Our God was, is and will be God forever, there is nothing too difficult for Him. God changed the heart of the Ninevite king, can’t God change the heart of our president, and of all the presidents in the world?

3. The King Decreed Repentance for the Whole Nation. The people were not allowed to eat anything, the whole nation was to fast, even the animals were not allowed to taste anything, not even water. The people and even the animals were to be covered in sackcloth. Imagine, all the dogs, the cats, the oxen, the goats wearing sackcloths. It was like the whole nation was holding a memorial service. Such a thing has never happened before. We have seen many countries observe New Year and Christmas Day by festivities, parades, fireworks; but we have never seen a whole nation having a memorial service. The king issued a decree asking everyone to call urgently on God and give up their evil ways. They acknowledged the evil things they had done, they urgently called on God.

In the Book of Jonah, we see at least three groups of people implored upon God:

The first batch was the men on the ship. When they were about to perish, they urgently called on God; as a result they experienced God’s miraculous deliverance.
The second batch was Jonah himself. Helpless inside the fish belly, Jonah called on the Lord and the Lord answered him.
The third batch was the people in the whole city of Nineveh. I can’t say for sure that every man in the city prayed, but I am sure a large percentage of them prayed. The people who prayed kept the whole city from being destroyed.

Verse 9, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” The word ‘may/maybe’ is very significant. It appears twice in the Book of Jonah. The first time the word ‘maybe’ appeared is in Jonah chapter one, when the captain told Jonah, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.” The second time is when the king of Nineveh said, “Who knows? God may yet relent…” What does maybe mean? It means he is not sure whether it will help or not. The king of Nineveh meant: ‘We have sinned greatly, we are a people who deserve to perish, let us repent, and hope God will have mercy on us and not destroy us.’

In the Book of Jonah, the Gentiles seemingly showed more fear and awareness of God than Jonah did! Jonah felt they deserved death because they were very wicked. The Ninevites themselves felt they really deserved death, but Jonah seemed to have forgotten that he also deserved death. Today, we do not have time to discuss the question of predestination, why God saves one and not another, and whether God is unfair or not. But I tell you, salvation is not about fairness.

If you want to drive a car, you have to use a car key, you cannot use a pencil to start the car’s engine. With the wrong tool, the outcome will be wrong. Salvation cannot be discussed on the premise of fairness. Salvation is about grace. If you want to use fairness to discuss salvation, you will only have to come to one conclusion and that is we all deserve to die. We all deserve to die, hell is our eternal portion, no one is exempted, because we are all sinners; our minds are deceitful, our actions are deceitful; even when we do good, our motives aren’t 100% pure. But for us who deserve to perish in hell, the Lord saved some of us. This is not an issue of fairness, but of grace. The king of Nineveh said, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” The king of Nineveh said it right, who knows…God may yet relent. He understood God’s heart. How amazing are God’s works in the hearts of men, no wonder we call it amazing grace.

III. Amazing Regret 3:10

Maybe we can also call it God’s amazing regret. Verse 10 “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” God relented – this statement seems disturbing, yet it is at the same time wonderful. Genesis 6:5 says “The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” Then verse 7, “So the LORD said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground for I regret that I have made them.” God regretted and as a result the flood came and destroyed all living creatures. God’s regret is frightening. Yet, God’s regret is also wonderful, because of it, the 500,000 people in the city of Nineveh were saved.

Let us first understand what God’s regret means. 1Samuel 15 records God instructing Saul to kill all the Amalekites; but Saul did not follow God’s command, and so God rejected Saul as king. Verse 28 Samuel said to him, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors to one better than you.” Verse 29 “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.”

God never regrets something he has done, because he can never make a mistake. He will never say: `Oh no! I was wrong, I regret this.’ But in the same chapter in verse 35, it says, “Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.” This verse says the Lord regretted, so does God ever regret or not?

In literature, there is a form of writing called personification. It is a form of writing that attributes human qualities to objects or abstract notions, such as saying the stones speak or shed tears, in order to help readers understand a certain concept. God is spirit, but the Bible also says God’s eyes see men’s hearts, his ears hear the cries of men. God doesn’t have physical eyes or ears, this is only to help us understand God’s heart. God can never regret because he is in sovereign control of everything, but God’s heart grieves or rejoices when men change. The authors of the Bible (as inspired by the Holy Spirit) used the word regret to help us understand God’s heart. Saul was the first king of Israel, not only was he handsome, he also had good character, was humble, submissive and capable. He had a bright future ahead. But, after he became king, his heart changed gradually; God no longer was his Lord, his throne became his god. The Lord was grieved upon seeing Saul’s change of heart and the Bible says God regretted that he made him king.

When the Lord saw how the Ninevites turned from their evil ways, he was very pleased. God is not a God who delights to see the wicked perish. The Bible says, “he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened”, meaning their repentance pleased God and he postponed the disaster then. But if ever they return to their evil ways, God’s judgment will come upon them. God never regrets his determined will.

Do you know that in the Bible there is a book that records the destruction of Nineveh? A hundred years after Jonah, this city returned to its wicked ways, and God sent the prophet Nahum to preach his judgment, but that generation did not repent, and so the city was destroyed. No one can change God’s established will, God never regrets his determined will, but man’s repentance can change the time frame for the fulfillment of God’s will. The Lord observed the city of Nineveh for 40 days and saw their turn-around, and so the Lord postponed his judgment and did not destroy them.

This present generation is very much like Noah’s generation, men are eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. This generation is also like that of Nineveh’s, full of violence and evil ways. This generation is headed towards destruction, but does God care about it? How God must long to see this generation repent, for His grace and mercy to come upon it. God commands His Church to go and spread the news of repentance, baptize people in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. O Church! God can never regret. This world will one day be destroyed by fire, but before that day comes, we must save more souls while we can. This is the reason for the continued existence of the Church!

Today as we celebrate the church’s 24th anniversary, may we not forget the reason we exist, may we not forget the vision of the church. We exist to fulfil the Great Commandment and the Great Commission for the glory of God. May we continue to be a church that fulfils the Great Commandment and Great Commission. How many people have you led to the Lord?